Santa Cruz nonprofit The Clean Oceans Project has big hopes for cleaning up trash from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
The world’s largest landfill is an accidental one.
Dubbed The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it stretches across the Northern Pacific Ocean about half way between Hawaii and the San Francisco Bay Area. Depending on whom you ask, its estimated bulk ranges from the size of Texas to bigger than the continental United States, and can reach depths of 100 feet.
So titled because it is home to exceptionally high concentrations of plastics, chemical sludge and other debris, the garbage patch is located within the North Pacific Gyre—an area estimated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) to be between seven and nine million square miles. The gyre comprises four currents that rotate in a clockwise pattern around a central point. Like a disastrous conveyor belt, the currents sweep up and transport debris, dumping them into the center (the maritime dump in question), and trap them there.
The North Pacific Gyre is one of the world’s five major subtropical gyres, and not the only one suspected of aggregating serious amounts of junk. However, it is the most researched and understood—as well as the most publicized.
Thus far, efforts concerning the Pacific Trash Vortex, as it is also known, mostly concentrate on publicizing or documenting the problem. NOAA’s Marine Debris Program is working with a variety of partners to address the matter. Other groups, like the well-known Project Kaisei, whose tagline is “Capturing the Plastic Vortex,” have gone as far as to take elaborate expeditions to the gyre to research and record the problem.
There was also environmentalist/adventurer David de Rothschild, who sailed a boat made of recycled plastic (the vessel was named Plastiki) from San Francisco to the gyre to spark discussion on possible uses of recycled plastics.
Overall, plastic pollution prevention and education is ballooning. Cities across the country have banned single-use plastic bags and a California-wide ban (AB 1998) is in legislative limbo, awaiting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signature.
But, despite the hype, very little energy has been spent finding a way to actually clean the trash up, which is where a new ocean-friendly Santa Cruz nonprofit comes in.
Nick Drobac co-founded The Clean Oceans Project (TCOP) with Jim “Captain Homer” Holm in 2008 when the pair realized they might have to take matters into their own hands.
“There were a lot of organizations and a lot of efforts focused on documenting the problem, on advocacy about the problem, about legislation for single-use plastics and alternative materials—lots of information about lots of different topic areas, except about clean-up,” says Drobac, who serves as TCOP’s executive director. “At first I thought I just wasn’t looking in the right place, because there is no way that somebody hasn’t thought about cleaning it up [with] a problem that has been going on for this long, is this big, and is this harmful to the environment and to humans.”
For Drobac, the journey to TCOP began with a professional blow. The former law school student was working in commercial construction in San Francisco when the recession took its toll and he was laid off. “I was at a professional crossroads, and I found myself thinking this might be the perfect opportunity to find my calling, as opposed to just a job,” he says. Born and raised in coastal Santa Cruz, he was drawn to doing work to help the oceans. After deciding to focus on plastic pollution, he moved back to Santa Cruz after five years away, and, serendipitously, soon learned that his old friend Capt. Holm was working on something similar.
Licensed through the Coast Guard since 1979, Holm has spent a large portion of the past 30 years aboard a boat—whether traveling to Pacific Ocean islands, sailing through the Panama Canal or to the Mediterranean Sea, or operating private yachts, marine research vessels, rescue boats and more. As Operations Director, he is the only TCOP staff member to have been to the North Pacific Gyre—although the dozen or so times he passed through were more than 20 years ago, before the area was designated as a trash problem. Still, he says that his travels have shown him “incredible beauty and also … pollution in places where people have never been.”
Gathered with the rest of the TCOP team in their new Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor office, Holm explains how deep his commitment to the ocean runs.
“The ocean’s been everything in my life,” he says. “It’s where I earn a living, it’s where I get my entertainment, and it’s where I get my air. I’m lucky enough to have been a lot of places, and I’ve seen that the ocean has a lot of challenges that people need to be aware of.”
Over the years, Holm helped develop and operate several successful local marine education programs, such as Science Under Sail at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and O’Neill’s Sea Odyssey.
Having already made a splash with educational programs, Holm came together with Drobac and TCOP Science and Education Director Chris Reeves to devise a more action-based approach to ocean health. The one condition, which remains their M.O. today, was to make no promises.
“We want to make sure we aren’t making any rash promises,” reasons Holm. “We are going out there and doing the due diligence to see what is possible, because we don’t know until we try.”
The trio knew from the get-go that this meant they would be different than other groups working on the marine plastics issue.
“Other organizations have charged forward without a real game plan,” explains Drobac. “Their plan was to … create a lot of fanfare, which in one sense is not horrible because it continues to keep the topic in the news, but it doesn’t really serve to create a solution. From the early stage, we decided that’s how we were going to distinguish ourselves: to do the research before we went out there and burnt fuel, before we went out and spent money, before we understood the scope of the problem.”
Having assembled a dedicated staff (including Drobac, Holm, Reeves, Development Director Zelda Tallman, Marketing and Communications Director Jenna Palacio and Financial Operations Director Arnon Foa), Board of Directors, and teams of scientific, business and technical advisors, TCOP began examining three major questions: how to locate the plastic (“realistically and consistently,” adds Holm), remove it (“environmentally and economically sustainably”), and how to dispose of it once collected.
They networked like fiends, resulting in collaborations with leading scientists at Stanford University, the Naval Postgraduate School of Monterey, the High Seas Ghost Net Project, and more. One notable partner is leading climate change scientist Rob Dunbar, a William M. Keck professor of Earth Sciences at Stanford University and TCOP’s chief scientific advisor.
“I was convinced to support the project, and to offer my assistance, after spending some months thinking about the problem as well as the way TCOP leadership was thinking about possible solutions and technologies,” Dunbar writes via email to Good Times. “I came to believe that they are truly open to any good ideas that come along and that they are also willing to do hard-nosed cost-benefit calculations and technology modeling to make sure they come up with financially viable and technically sustainable solutions.”
“Thorough” is the best way to describe TCOP’s game plan. Phase one involves near-shore testing of remote sensing technologies to determine if it is possible to effectively locate the plastic debris. They have begun local trials on some of the equipment, such as Mountain View-based CODAR Ocean Sensors (a high frequency radar system). Depending on the technology in question, other trials may take place in Alaska and Hawaii, and will involve boats between 18 and 65 feet long.
“It’s not just one technology [we’re using],” says Drobac. “There are multiple different pieces of equipment that will be used in conjunction with each other. There’s no silver bullet.”
Phase two is contingent upon the results of phase one. Hopes are that they will replicate their small-scale, near-shore experiments on-site at the North Pacific Gyre, as well as test various methods of debris collection.
Phase three is the real thing: once they’ve determined the best “package” of technologies and methods, they will commence on the North Pacific Gyre for some serious cleanup, which will be carefully monitored.
For now, TCOP is “investigating any and all things we can come up with that might be useful for this,” says Holm. They remain fairly tight-lipped about the details—at least until funding is secured. According to Drobac, phase one will be the least expensive at about $20,000 “to fully fund the first phase of testing.” However, phase two involves offshore, small-scale deployment, and will be “a whole other ballgame.” Phase three will cost even more. They are presently in talks with potential donors and corporate sponsors.
Fueled by media depictions, public imagination beholds the garbage patch as an island of amassed plastic—a solid, floating monument to human consumption and waste. In reality, the patch isn’t so patch-like. The majority of the debris trapped in the area is small particles NOAA calls “microplastics,” which are hard to see and even harder to clean up.
“The process is called photodegredation. Over time, something that might be a lump the size of this table,” Drobac says, grabbing the edge of the square folding table before him, “becomes hundreds of millions of little tiny pieces that disperse through the water.”
Out-of-place plastics accumulating in the oceans already disrupt and alter ecosystems, entangle marine animals and are mistaken for food; but they are also breaking down into itsy pieces that act as ticking toxic time bombs. The dust-sized plastic particles attract and stick to “persistent organic pollutants” (or POPs), such as DDT, DDE, PCBs and other chemicals that wind up in the ocean as pollution.
“Because [plastic is] a petroleum product, it attracts other petroleum products, such as DDT and its breakdown products, and other unknown carcinogens [and] fertilizers—really nasty chemicals that end up in the ocean, and those things stick to the plastic particles,” explains Reeves, who is also the visitor programs manager at the Long Marine Laboratory’s Seymour Marine Discovery Center.
Studies have shown that these microplastics can have POP concentrations a million times higher than the surrounding seawater. This carcinogen-packed plastic is then “ingested by filter feeding animals and works its way up the food chain,” says Reeves. “So we find really high levels of some of the most toxic chemicals we produce in the top feeders in the ocean.”
The theory that marine plastics are “too small” to sequester is one of the main criticisms of Garbage Patch cleanup efforts. TCOP is exploring the removal of microplastics, but plans to eradicate the larger pieces first—extracting them from the sea before they can break down. Many in the scientific community also believe there is too much debris to make a successful cleanup possible. Drobac admits that “it will take many organizations like ours to even put a dent in it in the long term,” but that isn’t stopping TCOP from trying.
And even among those who agree it may be possible, there is concern that removing pollution from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is counterproductive. “The issue is that we have to reduce our consumption of plastic overall, and folks are afraid that if it looks like the [plastic pollution] problem is under control, people won’t care as much about it, or [they won’t] recycle or reduce consumption,” explains Reeves.
Professor Dunbar disagrees with that notion. “There are two sides to the ocean plastic debris issue,” he says. “One is cutting it off at the source and producing and using less plastic. The second is active recovery. The focus should correctly be on both parts of the solution. TCOP has a good business plan for studying the recovery part of the problem and experimenting with different detection and cleanup technologies.”
As for the feat’s practicality, Dunbar says, “anything is possible with a collective will, technology, and financing.”
If TCOP has succeeded in anything so far, it has been opening the minds of disbelievers. “A lot of the folks who were adamantly fixed in their position that it couldn’t be done, once we left the meeting [with them], said, ‘I’m interested, I’m curious, you sound reasonable, logical, methodical. I’m willing to hear more,’” says Drobac, recounting the endless meetings they’ve held with anyone who would listen.
Reeves, a science-minded man through and through, put it this way: “If we can put a man on the moon, we can pick up our trash. There’s no reason it can’t be done just because somebody doesn’t have the immediate way to do it.
“We are absolutely doing this with the idea of creating a solution,” he continues. “But it’s possible that there may not be one. In which case, we’ll at least have done the research to know that. But our species is reliant on the oceans. It’s not the ocean that our parents had. It’s not the ocean it was even a generation ago, and it won’t ever be again. It seems crazy not to try to do what we can to help solve the problems now.”n
Learn more about The Clean Oceans Project and what else they’re up to at thecleanoceansproject.org.